Notes: Comma

THE COMMA, WHICH seems to cup the sense of the preceding phrase and hold it out to us, timidly and respectfully, is one of our greatest breakthroughs. The civilizing influence of this punctuational aid derives partly from its odd shape, the shape of mosquito larvae and sea horses: close inspection reveals the implied high culture of its asymmetrical tapering swerve, so distinctly an advance over the more rustic period. Rationally, one might expect the functions of these two elements of punctuation to be reversed: The comma a baffle to the progress of the eye; the period, a mere dot, easily overlooked. The comma a fallen branch partially impeding a stream; the period, meanwhile, a single cold pebble. But the functions of the two are not reversed,

I think, because the graceful curving motion necessary to the creation of the comma, that flip of the pen, is similar to the motions we use in writing the prose that surrounds it, while the period is an alien jab, tacking the sentence onto the paper.

The comma is like the expressive dips of the hands we employ when making a point in friendly conversation; the period is a tap of a judge’s gavel. The comma is accommodating, deferential, clement; the period is Apollonian and preoccupied. As a general rule, the fewer commas you use, the more of a tyrant you would be if placed in a position of power. It is instructive to read political theorists in this light.

—Nicholson Baker